Yawning vs. Not Reading: Americans and Translations a Decade Apart

This morning, the Daily Beast ran a piece by Bill Morris entitled Why Americans Don’t Read Foreign Fiction. It starts with Morris admitting his ignorance of Patrick Modiano’s work prior to his winning the Nobel Prize, then goes into a reading of Modiano’s Suspected Sentences, before veering into the speculative rabbit hole of why more books aren’t translated, and why a lot of these books are hard to sell.

In 2003, Stephen Kinzer wrote a story for the New York Times entitled Why Americans Yawn at Foreign Fiction. It starts by discussing how very few people in America had heard of Imre Kertesz before he won the Nobel Prize. As with Morris’s article above, it goes on to point out a few of the more successful translations of recent times (Kinzer points to Boris Akunin, whereas Morris lists a number, including Roberto Bolaño and Stieg Larsson), then discusses all the reasons why more translations aren’t published in America.

I refere to Kinzer’s article a lot, generally using it as a baseline to show how far coverage of translations by the mainstream media has come with regard to writing about international literature. There’s no way anyone would use the word “yawn” nowadays!

It’s fascinating to me that these two articles came out 12 years apart, but hit on a lot of the same problems. We’ve come a long way, yet many of the same problems are still there, permanently ingrained in the publishing-reading ecosystem.

Looking at these two pieces side-by-side is pretty interesting though . . .

From Morris:

So the question becomes: are so few translated books available because American readers don’t read them, or do American readers read so little foreign fiction and poetry because so little of it is available in translation? Or is it a bit of both? [. . .]

There is no shortage of theories. Americans are physically isolated and culturally insulated, goes one. But if so, why do they devour such contemporary or recently deceased foreign writers as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Umberto Eco, Carlos Fuentes, Michel Houellebecq, Roberto Bolaño, Stieg Larsson, Milan Kundera, Haruki Murakami, Knausgaard, Carlos Ruis Záfon and Per Petterson? Sometimes, if you publish it, the readers will come.

From Kinzer:

‘‘We were seen as a leading university press for literature in translation, but we’ve decided to make it a smaller part of our program because it just is not viable,’‘ said Donna Shear, director of Northwestern University Press. ‘‘It’s expensive, and the sales aren’t there. This is definitely a trend in the university press world.’‘

This trend has spread from university presses to publishing in general. Writers, publishers and cultural critics have long lamented the difficulty of interesting American readers in translated literature, and now some say the market for these books is smaller than it has been in generations.

Now that’s a contrast I can really get behind. In 2003, Donna Shear was still at Northwestern University Press (she later left for University of Nebraska) and was cutting back on the number of translations NUP was doing. At the time, the Writings from an Unbound Europe series, which includes works from Bohumil Hrabal, Jaan Kross, Georgi Gospodinov, David Albahari, and many more of the best writers of Eastern Europe, was probably the premiere series of translations out there. This series was officially ended in 2012. In 2013, Northwestern published one book in translation, and they did exactly one in 2014 as well.

By contrast, Morris is able to point to a number of international writers who widely known in America, including a number—Záfon, Petterson, Knausaard, Bolaño, Larsson—whose success came after the 2003 Kinzer piece.

From Morris:

“It’s not that Americans don’t want foreign fiction,” Gurewich [Judith, publisher of Other Press] insists. “But they’re intimidated. This is the difficulty. How does one cross that bridge?” [. . .]

“America is a puzzle of very complicated groups,” Gurewich says. “Readers are receptive if it lands in their hands. What is the secret to putting books in their hands? How do you find people who want to find out how other people think?” [. . .]

“There may be an increasing acceptance of translation now,” Glusman [John, editor in chief at W.W. Norton] says, laughing at the memory of that rejection letter [a rejection of and I.B. Singer novel], “but there has always been resistance to it. There’s an initial resistance to foreign writers because many are unknown to American readers.”

He adds, “I think there are cycles of awareness, just as there are fashions in other businesses. Once publishers see an unusual success with a certain kind of book, people jump on the bandwagon. This happened with Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, with Peter Høeg’s Smilla’s Sense of Snow, and with Harry Potter. People tried to jump in and replicate it. That’s not easy to do.”

(Something about Glusman’s statement bugs me, but I’m not sure how to put my finger on it . . . Is he really saying that publishing international literature is a trend? And dude, get some fucking contemporary references. All three of the books/series he references are decades old.

Also, this is a perfect moment to mention Ann Morgan’s The World Between Two Covers about her quest to read a book in translation from every country in the world.)

From Kinzer:

In interviews publishers cited many reasons for their increasing reluctance to bring out books by non-American writers. Several said a decisive factor was the concentration of ownership in the book industry, which is dominated by a few conglomerates. That has produced an intensifying fixation on profit. As publishers focus on blockbusters, they steadily lose interest in little-known authors from other countries.

Some publishers said that they had no staff editors who read foreign languages and that they hesitated to rely on the advice of outsiders about which foreign books might capture the imagination of Americans. Others mentioned the high cost of translation, the local references in many non-American books and the different approach to writing that many foreign authors take.

“A lot of foreign literature doesn’t work in the American context because it’s less action-oriented than what we’re used to, more philosophical and reflective,’‘ said Laurie Brown, senior vice president for marketing and sales at Harcourt Trade Publishers. ‘‘As with foreign films, literature in translation often has a different pace, a different style, and it can take some getting used to. The reader needs to see subtleties and get into the mood or frame of mind to step into a different place. Americans tend to want more immediate gratification. We’re into accessible information. We often look for the story, rather than the story within the story. We’d rather read lines than read between the lines.”

The profit thing is always an issue, always an excuse commercial presses use. Which, not to bang the nail right on the head, or whatever (there’s no way that’s an understood cliche . . . I really need some coffee), is exactly why the National Endowment for the Art, universities, and donors really need to support non-profit presses. These are the outlets that will keep the literary world vibrant and not so focused only on those books that appeal to the widest possible audience. (Smart cosmopolitan readers deserve books too!)

Laurie Brown’s statement is the most annoying thing in either of these articles. (Quick sidenote: this was before Harcourt fired Drenka Willen—and later rehired her after all the living Nobel Prize winners she’d published wrote a scathing letter to Houghton Mifflin Harcourt—who was the lifeblood of international literature at Harcourt for decades.) Let me paraphrase here to make it utterly clear how dangerous this point of view really is. And I’ll do so in my written imitation of the most annoying voice I can imagine. Because reading this quote has me scratching out my eyes.

So, like, Americans? They’re really into ACTION. Quick, easy to understand action. These readers who we sell our books to? They can’t read between the lines! They can’t think philosophy! They need immediate gratification and information conveyed in the simplest of ways. That’s just who American readers are (psst . . . they’re dummies!) and so we give the people the want. We couldn’t give two fucks about culture—we just want to make money off the sheep! I mean, readers.

God damn it. I forget how bleak and fucked up things were in 2003. Granted, a lot of things are still the same—presses don’t hire editors who can speak foreign languages, a lot of books don’t make money, 85% of translations come out from small, indie, university, nonprofit presses—but at least we seem to be covering it in a more nuanced way, one in which we can point to notable successes.

So, onward and upward, I guess. At least American just don’t read foreign fiction now, instead of “yawning” at it.

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